Cover Story - A conversation with former Outwrite Books owner Philip Rafshoon

Program director of the AJC Decatur Book Festival discusses Pride in community

Philip Rafshoon, the former owner of Midtown LGBT institution Outwrite Bookstore and current program director of the AJC Decatur Book Festival, discusses the evolution of Atlanta's gay community in this excerpted conversation.

When Outwrite Bookstore closed at 10th and Piedmont streets in 2012, it sparked conversation about whether Atlanta's gay community had outgrown the need for a ground zero neighborhood. What do you think?

It's a yes and no answer. As the community has grown, there are a lot of other places people can go now. They can go to clubs anywhere, they can go to theaters anywhere, we can go to churches and synagogues and many other places. So, there are a lot of different meeting places for people now. And I think that growth, in part, sparked the whole idea of: "Do we really need a ground zero?"

But at the same time, what went into the spot where Outwrite Books was now is a nice bar and restaurant called 10th & Piedmont that really caters to the LGBT community. And right across the street there's a thriving bar Ten, which is new, which caters to the community. Down the street there's Henry's, which is a restaurant/bar that caters to our community. So it still seems to be ground zero.

I think it's the next best thing to having a bookstore there.

Has anything emerged to fill that intellectual void?

Well, there's nobody doing specifically what we were doing. And there was nobody, I would say, in the country that was able to do what we were doing. One night we'd have a group reading from a book on the gay elements in Shakespeare's work, and the next night we'd have Roseanne Barr. So it would be hard to find somebody who has that eclectic a mix of writers and readers that really relates to the LGBT community. At the same time, there are great events going on at Charis Books, there are lots of organizations bringing literature to the city multiple times during the week. It's hard to keep up with everything on the literary calendar these days.

I'm really proud of what we did there, and we really had a unique thing, but the idea that, "What's going to happen to the community when Outwrite is gone?" Well, the community's held together pretty well and is thriving in a lot of areas.

Has the so-called mainstreaming of gay culture had any impact over the past two years on how you plan the Decatur Book Festival overall, or its LGBT track, specifically?

We've had a great LGBT lineup, last year and this year. But with the success of the LGBT community moving forward, coming out, being more accepted, and gay people being able to do more things while being out and more open than ever before, you get this inevitable thing that happens when people, particularly artists and writers, become successful at what they do. When they start out in their own community and become successful, they're able to write stuff for the mainstream. And then there's this challenge of: "Am I a gay writer? Or am I a writer who happens to be gay?" It's not just something that happens in the gay community; I think it's something that happens in any community when you come from a specific genre or you come from a community that's marginalized — whether it be Asian, Latino, Jewish, or African-American.

In any group, the most successful people become mainstream, but they're faithful to their roots. They don't turn their back and say, I'm not a gay writer anymore. It's a challenge that we run across in every genre, and we do run into it in the LGBT world. Sometimes we put LGBT writers on panels together and sometimes we put them with straight writers. And then there's always the big question of whether this is part of the LGBT track or not. But we end up with a pretty great lineup.

Do you feel that there's a divide between the gay black and gay white communities in Atlanta?

In the South? Hell, no, there's no problems between black and white!

Yes, there's a divide between black and white communities everywhere in the city, and it's no different in the gay community. It's a lot better than it was before, and I think there's more connectedness than there was before, but I still think we have light years to go. One of our proudest achievements at Outwrite is that we did provide a welcoming space for everybody. We had a good mix of black and white in the store. And I'm still so very proud that we were able to do that, because it's a tough thing to do in Atlanta.

And sometimes I wonder if that divide isn't in some ways a healthy, natural thing. Like the fact that we have two different Prides here in Atlanta.

Nothing annoys me more than hearing the question every year at Black Gay Pride about, "Why do we need a Black Gay Pride?" It's just infuriating. My answer's always, "For the same reason that you need a Gay Pride." It's a group of people who feel a need to get together and celebrate, there's marginalization in the community, and there's no reason not to have it.

Are there any specific Pride events you're looking forward to this year?

I always look forward to the parade more than anything else. There's nothing more fantastic to me than seeing everybody out on the streets of Atlanta. There are so many traditions in the parade — from the grand marshals, to the Dykes on Bikes, to the floats, and PFLAG, and AID Atlanta. I always love going to the park and checking out the booths and onstage entertainment. The opening party at the Georgia Aquarium is always a great chance to see old friends and meet new ones. So I look forward to a lot of things, and I really enjoy Pride. I enjoyed it when I had to work a million hours that weekend, and I enjoy it now that I don't.

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